Sarcasm aside, Chef Lucio’s passion for cooking and his desire to teach are evident. “We want to get you comfortable with all styles of cuisine and [teach you how] to cook a meal for your loved ones from scratch,” he says, adding that the biggest misconception among boot-camp students is their mis­understanding of how to use heat properly.

According to owner Shelley Young, most Chopping Block students are novice chefs at best. In fact, some may not even enjoy cooking but simply show up after receiving an invitation to one of the venue’s private cooking parties.
“For us, that’s a golden opportunity,” Young says.

Young bemoans the personality-driven cooking shows on television that, although increasing the public’s food literacy, don’t actually explain what goes into creating a dish. “They really don’t offer anything in the way of teaching cooking. Our mission is to get the country to cook,” says Young, who estimates The Chopping Block sees more than 2,500 students per month in its various culinary classes.

By noon on Boot Camp Day One, The Chopping Block smells heavenly of olive oil, garlic, onion and Romesco sauce. We take a well-deserved break to sample our concoctions. My pollo andaluza receives high marks; the brandada, not so much.

In the afternoon, after completing and eating the paella and croquetas, we sit down with a selection of olives, cheeses, cured meats and assorted sherries which, Chef Lucio explains, Spaniards consumed after a meal. Upon sampling a particularly pricey cut of lomo serrano ham, Lara’s review is swift: “Tastes like beef jerky.”
Chef Lucio’s eyes literally roll to the back of his skull as he reaches for the sherry. I stifle the urge to say, “Allllll riiiiiiiight!”

With half of the class complete, I trudge, exhausted, east on Kinzie Street, pausing briefly at Moe’s Cantina, a Mexican-themed restaurant just yards from The Chopping Block’s Merchandise Mart location. Don’t worry, Moe, I think to myself. Your job is safe. For now.

The following day at 0900 hours, boot camp reconvenes. This time, we’re under the tutelage of Chef Trevor Moore and his happy-go-lucky assistant Clair Smith. Chef Trevor starts the day with a joke:

“How many chefs does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“We don’t know. How many?”
“One to change it and six to say how they would do it differently.”
This guy, I like.
The atmosphere is more lighthearted, but the menu is just as exotic. We don our aprons and get to work immediately. I pause briefly to read a text from my wife:
“I’m still in bed.”
“I’m frying cactus,” I reply.

And I wasn’t joking. Several large cactus paddles lay on the counter, waiting to be cleaned. “Just use your knife to scrape off the spines,” Chef Trevor tells us.
Two-day boot camps at Chicago's
The Chopping Block cost $700. Visit  www.thechoppingblock.net for more information and to see available classes. 


Sure. Whatever.

For the record, fried (hopefully spineless) cactus with chipotle mayonnaise is delicious.
The rest of the day brings lectures on the varying heat levels of peppers (warning: Google “Bhut Jolokia” before consuming one); the importance of corn in the Mexican culinary universe; a menu of chiles rellenos, refried beans, pozole verde, duck mole, black-bean-and-mushroom tamales and nopales fries; and a much-needed tequila tasting.

At the end of the day, I pack up the leftovers from my culinary adventure, including my fried cactus, and head home, where I display it all proudly in front of my children.

“Dig in, everybody!”
“Ewwwww. Gross.”

OK, so I might have a little more work to do. And maybe I won’t be hosting a dinner party any time soon. But, I did learn that I should always keep my knives sharp; that salt is my friend, not my enemy; and to rid my hands of onion odor, I should rub them on stainless steel. Above all, though, I learned that, as Chef Trevor says, you should always experiment rather than rely on a recipe.

Hmmm. I wonder how pancakes would taste with a little Salsa Roja? 


Greg Schwem is a Chicago-based corporate stand-up comedian and an author of the nationally syndicated “Humor Hotel” column. His favorite cooking utensil is a microwave oven.